The BBC is finally launching its creative archive project, with the adoption of a new licensing scheme based on the creative commons concept of “some rights reserved”. The licence also has the backing of Channel 4, the British Film Institute and the Open University.

The creative archive project was first announced by Greg Dyke, former director general of the BBC, at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August 2003. The project was originally due to launch in the Autumn of 2004.

The aim is to provide access to certain archive material for non-commercial use, including re-use in personal projects. The initiative also has broader public service ambitions in pioneering a new approach to public access rights in the digital age.

“This isn’t just the BBC looking to do something for us but actually a framework for many organisations in the UK,” said Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of new media and technology, in the Guardian. “We have started with a group that has a clear interest in this, but this does not preclude others from coming on board.”

The BBC is planning an 18 month pilot project, after which it will submit the scheme to the public value test against which all such initiatives must now be measured.

Although other parties are signed up to the creative archive licence in principle, it seems that the BBC will initially be taking the lead.

Channel 4 will actually make very little of its own broadcast content available, because many of the rights in its programmes generally belong to independent producers. Instead it will promote the collaborative re-use of contributed content.

The British Film Institute will be limited to some old newsreel footage and out of copyright silent comedies, while the Open University will contribute just five hours of material.

Creative Commons
The creative archive licence is derived from the creative commons concept pioneered in the United States. This proposes a middle way to rights management, rather than the extremes of reserving all rights and imposing digital rights management on the one hand, and making material public domain on the other. It will offer the ability to release audio visual content for viewing, coping and sharing, but with some rights reserved, such as commercial exploitation.

At a meeting of interested parties, including other broadcasters, museums and archives, the original announcement of the plans to develop a creative archive was welcomed by Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School, chair of the Creative Commons project.

“If the vision proves a reality,” he said, “Britain will become a centre for digital creativity, and will drive the many markets – in broadband deployment and technology – that digital creativity will support.”

The use of a licensing model based on creative commons will be a significant boost to the movement that has already been widely adopted by the online community. Offering work under a Creative Commons license does not mean giving up copyright. It means offering some rights to any taker, and only on certain conditions, such as requiring attribution, for non-commercial purposes, or without creating derivative works, or any combination of these.

Some people had erroneously assumed that with the creative archive the BBC would be opening up its vast library onto the internet, but the actual volume of material to be released under the scheme will actually be quite modest.

Part of the problem is that broadcasters do not necessarily control all the rights to their archive material, in which contributors and other copyright holders generally retain subsidiary rights. For this reason natural history footage is likely to be a feature. Animals, it seems, do not have rights, or talent unions to protect them. As Ashley Highfield says “antelopes don’t have agents and so it makes sense to start with factual programmes”.

One of the objectives of the creative archive is to allow the creative re-use of archive material, for instance for school projects. However, the licensing arrangements will preclude commercial exploitation, enabling rights holders to charge for such usage.

Other publicly funded organisations, such as NASA, do make material available in the public domain and permit commercial use, subject to certain limitations.

Free to view
The idea that it may not be necessary to enforce restrictive digital rights management is a powerful one in a commercial world that embraces the concept of content protection and conditional access.

Under Greg Dyke, the BBC removed the conditional access on its satellite services, enabling anyone to receive the free to air signals without the need for either a subscription or a decoder card.

The digital terrestrial television signals on Freeview are also similarly unencumbered, enabling anyone with a personal computer tuner card to capture and record programmes digitally.

Naturally, only personal use is permitted, and this could present a problem as the file sharing of television programmes becomes increasingly popular. Without technical control, copyright owners must resort to legal means to enforce their rights.

Interactive Media Player
Meanwhile, the BBC is pursing another pet project, the interactive media player or IMP. Based on the existing model of allowing radio programmes to be downloaded, there are plans to provide access to certain television programmes for up to a week after their first transmission.

However, IMP will use secure digital rights management to restrict further distribution or unauthorised viewing beyond the viewing window. This seems strangely restrictive, given that anyone can legally record a programme for personal use, whether on VHS tape, a digital PVR, or a DVD.

The digital dilemma for public service broadcasters such as the BBC is that they would like to make them as widely available as possible, but they literally cannot afford to do so.

In cases where the BBC, as a publicly funded body, does or could wholly own rights to material, and where there is limited potential for further commercial exploitation, the ultimate justification for the public broadcaster may be that it offers its material on more relaxed licensing terms wherever possible.